Knicks Memorabilia Corner

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A NIGHT AMONG THE ORIGINALS

by Dennis D’Agostino

 

                Lawrence Gooberman - please, call him Larry - is a gregarious, energetic, far-more-youthful-than-his-years New Yorker and lifelong Knicks fan, who has earned a PhD, has served as chief-of-staff to a Rockefeller and District Representative for a US Congressman said: “I feel that everything around me, everything on my wall, reminds me who I am.”

 

                Including one precious piece that resonates with the very beginnings of the New York Knicks.

                Gooberman, a native New Yorker who splits his time between the city and the Catskills, is the founder and president of Laurel Associates, a real estate firm specializing in land acquisition and development strategies. He also still loves the excitement of playing in a good game of basketball.

                "I believe in Doc Rivers’ philosophy, adapting my skills to what the team requires to win. On a good day, I can also hit the open shot."

                He competes with players younger than half his age at a gym on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan. He's been a volunteer coach (one of his young charges was St. John's Anthony Mason Jr., son of the Knicks Anthony Mason) for The City Sports For Kids Program. His coaching mantra is "always be behind at halftime. That's when teenage boys listen best to the coach. They are forced to accept their own weaknesses and adapt to the situation at hand in order to avoid the disappointment of a loss."

                But let’s get back to that office wall.

                "One item I have is a portrait of the 1969-70 championship Knicks by Stan Kotzen. I have a team photo of my son Keith's 2002 Birch Wathen Lenox Manhattan Independent High School League championship team, a 21-3 season. I have my NYC taxi drivers license, which I had from 1962-1968. That taxi license paid for the costs of college. I also have my NYC Pool Table Attendant's license. Poolrooms were known as hangouts for gamblers and a variety of unsavory characters in those days. To obtain a license the main qualification was no criminal convictions. Those were the first two jobs that I had that required some sort of test and licensing. I also have my Ph.D. degree from The City University Graduate Center, 1973, on that wall."

                He’s left out the best part, an item which had been virtually forgotten for decades, then re-discovered and hung among his other mementoes, and now poised to take its place among the most prized of Knicks and Garden memorabilia.

                Neatly matted and in a classic maple frame rests Larry Gooberman’s prize - a faded page taken out of a long-ago Knicks game program containing the autographs of ten members of the original 1946-47 Knickerbockers.

                The date is January 31, 1956. The Knicks are hosting the Philadelphia Warriors at the old 49th Street Garden, and this is a special occasion. It’s Dick McGuire Night, celebrating the then-seven-year career of the eventual Hall of Fame point guard and longtime Knicks symbol.

                Larry Gooberman of Queens, all of 14 years old, is on hand.

                “My very close friend Steve Singer, his father Teddy Singer and his buddy Irving Hart had four season seats at the Old Garden, front and center,” he recalls. “They were successful businessmen in the clothing industry. On that night, Irving Hart and Teddy Singer took Steve and myself to Dick McGuire Night.

                “Dick was a special favorite of Teddy Singer. Teddy was a Navy veteran and he was an amateur boxer who’d fought in the Garden. So when you walked in the Garden with Teddy, with the combination of his sports background, his personality, and his wonderful seats, he seemed to know everybody. All the security guys, all the people around. So going with Teddy to the Garden on a Tuesday night was special for a kid in high school.”

                Larry’s evening began with dinner at Nedick’s, and then it was inside for a typical Old Garden night packed with basketball. A Catholic High School game, then a contest featuring two Air Force teams, then the McGuire Night ceremonies, then - finally! - the Knicks game, a 105-95 win behind 21 points from Harry “the Horse” Gallatin.

                “Teddy Singer had been involved in the arrangements for Dick McGuire Night,” recalls Gooberman. “He gave a very substantial gift to Dick’s mother, Mrs. John McGuire. He donated a mink stole. Teddy’s business was called Reiner and Singer Furriers, at a time when the fur business was very lucrative. He presented this mink stole at center court to Dick and his mother.

                “It was a special thrill to be sitting in a seat with all these oldtimers who then went up to center court, and there’s my good buddy’s dad making this gift.”

                All these oldtimers, indeed.

                Seated alongside Larry and his friends were ten members of the Original Knicks, brought to the Garden specifically for the McGuire Night ceremonies. That night’s game program included a page that pictured eight of them, under the quaint headline of “Ye Oldtimers”...Hank Rosenstein, Leo Gottlieb, Nat Militzok, Sonny Hertzberg, Tommy Byrnes, Stan Stutz, Ossie Schectman and Ralph Kaplowitz. Two more Originals were also in attendance, though not pictured - Frank Mangiapane and Bill van Breda Kolff. All New York-bred, all Knicks Originals, all NBA pioneers.

                Young Larry knew history when he saw it, and there it was in the row right next to him. So during the course of the Knicks game, he took his program, pen in hand, and went down the row, one by one, until each of the ten originals had signed.

                “Fortunately, I had plenty of time,” he recalls. “They were all there for a long time, so I walked around to each one of them individually. They were very cordial, to say the least. I would actually say that they were friendly and helpful. And as I started to get closer to all ten, for some unconscious reason, I started to get excited and I felt I was doing something special. While many of these guys looked older to me - they were all my father’s age - they were all in their late 30s.

                “They were a group that felt very familiar to me. It was like being with a group of my dad’s buddies...veterans, guys that you met at the schoolyard, guys that lived in The Bronx and Queens and Brooklyn. There was no sense at all that they were celebrities. Many were World War II veterans, as I would later learn. All of them learned basketball in the schoolyards. It was clear that none of them thought of themselves as a star. None of them had had any overwhelming physical attributes.”

                That was typical of the early NBA players, those whose size and physical ability would be dwarfed by the skywalkers to come. Most had off-season jobs to supplement their meager pro salaries.

                “As I got to learn a little about these men, I got to learn how many of them questioned their careers in basketball,” said Gooberman. “Many of their families were disappointed that they took time away from their studies to play ball. They succeeded simply on their own hard work.

                “They were very local and it felt like that. I had become a little confused when I was getting the signatures. Many of them kind of looked the same to me, like people of another generation tend to. But they were very patient with me and helped me to complete my task. They made it happen.”

                When he was finished, young Larry had a prize among prizes. On one page were the signatures of 10 Original Knicks, exactly half of the first-year squad that went 33-27 under coach Neil Cohalan, who soon gave way to Hall of Famer Joe Lapchick. Gooberman, who would eventually expand his autograph collecting into a hobby, kept his 1956 treasure close at hand, at least for a while.

                “It’s the only thing that I’ve framed,” he says. “When my wife Susan and I moved to upstate New York in 1970, I left it with my mother, in her closet. I also left my wedding album; I was married in 1966. I didn’t really rediscover it all until about 10 years ago. It was kind of out of sight, out of mind. Then one day, my mother asked me, `Don’t you want your wedding album?’ And right next to it was the frame with the program in it.

                “I have hundreds of autographs, but this program was different. There was something in my mind that made me feel it was important, because it was a first. I knew these were the first Knicks.”

                Rediscovered, it went up on Gooberman’s crowded office wall next to the taxi license and the other keepsakes of an eventful life. And there it stayed for years, never made public except to a few close friends, until Larry’s sense of history kicked in once more just as it had that night back in ’56.

                “Working in real estate, you develop a sense of stewardship, legacy and history,” says Larry. “How best to preserve and share things for the future? That becomes a part of your perspective. Seeing video of the Garden Transformation and hearing about an actual wall of history or memorabilia, a little light went off. I said to myself that maybe this is something that the Garden would appreciate as part of their history, and I’d love to share it with the public.

                “Also, I thought about how much I appreciated Teddy Singer, taking me to many games at the Garden. Teddy's sons are lifelong friends of mine. Steve Singer was an outstanding soccer player at Bridgeport University, a fearless, tenacious sort of player. Scott Singer played basketball with Larry Newbold and Luther Green for coach Roy Rubin at LIU. Scott was the point guard for the LIU Blackbirds in 1968 when they played in the NIT at Madison Square Garden. He went on to play professionally in Israel. Sadly, Teddy did not live long enough to see his two sons excel in sports.”

                When Gooberman brought his autographed page to the attention of Knicks and Garden officials, they were awestruck. Not in the club archives nor within any of the memorabilia gathered for the Garden Transformation had there been a single piece that contained so many signatures from that original 1946-47 team.

                Of the 10 men who signed Larry’s program, Schectman – the oldest living Knick at 93 - is the lone survivor. In addition to the 1956 McGuire Night ceremony, club officials could remember just two other events which brought together a comparable gathering of 1946 Originals: the Old Garden finale in February 1968, and the home opener in 1996 which kicked off the club’s 50th anniversary season. But neither event could produce an item of such long-standing vintage as Gooberman’s.

                Now the 56-year old treasure is off Larry’s wall and in safe keeping within the Garden walls, on loan.

                It will span the decades back to a time that the NBA - known as the Basketball Association of America in the early years - had a hardscrabble quality that’s inconceivable today.

                “Ever since I started this dialog with the Garden people, I started to think about these players and where they came from,” says Gooberman. “They’re living in tenements. These are all children of immigrants, right? Sometimes they had to share a bathroom with 12 or 20 people, so it was no big deal to share a basketball. It was no big deal to cooperate, to help each other out.

                “The whole feeling of a basketball player being a person that’s doing another job as opposed to their friends - their friends in the garment center, or in teaching or being a fireman or something like that - that’s a very different concept from what we see in sports today. Somehow it almost comes through in their pictures. It’s much harder for today’s fans to connect with today’s players, due to their income and their lifestyles. It’s a situation that’s sort of been thrust on them; they didn’t necessarily seek it. But these [original] guys survived World War II and the Depression. They were happy to have a job; they had a job doing what they loved to do. They enjoyed earning a living and being with the people they were with, and afterward they went back to Brooklyn and Queens and The Bronx.”

                Indeed, each of the Originals that signed Larry’s program that night stayed in or around New York for the bulk of their lives. Only one - van Breda Kolff - made the game his lifelong career. But they all shared that unique, unmistakable honor of being The First.

                It was nearly three-quarters of a century ago. But thanks to one youngster’s tenacity on a winter night in 1956, they are back...back home at Madison Square Garden.

                "I sometimes sit on things for a decade and then suddenly something happens, a light goes off, and that's it. I want the public - Knicks fans in particular - to enjoy this not just leave it hanging on my office wall," Gooberman said to himself last year.

                “I’m proud to contribute to the Garden Transformation and provide some link to the past.”

                And what a link it is.

Knicks team historian/writer Dennis D’Agostino was the 2000 winner of the Marc Splaver/Howie McHugh “Tribute to Excellence” award from the NBA PR Directors Association for long and distinguished service to the League and media. His fourth book, “Keepers of the Game: When the Baseball Beat was the Best Job on the Paper”, is scheduled for release this winter by Potomac Books.